Among the elderly poor, price hikes make bad lives worse
Mr. Lee, who lives alone in Yangcheon District, western Seoul, had stir-fried onions with rice for dinner last week. The onions were picked out of a market trashcan in his neighborhood.
“I got onions that were thrown away, cut out the rotten parts and fried them,” said Lee, who is in his 70s.
Lately, Lee started to pick up the foods thrown away from the market and cook them for his meal.
Lee's 307,500 won basic pension is his only means of living. Buying food is barely possible anymore, especially with the recent rise in prices. He doesn't recall buying a carton of eggs this year.
Rising prices are hitting Korea's poor, particularly those who live on basic livelihood welfare payments like Lee.
A free cafeteria at Wongaksa Temple near Tapgol Park in central Seoul was filled with senior citizens at 11 a.m. last Friday. Lee was among them.
Holding a numbered queue ticket in his hand, Lee said, "I eat one or two meals a day, and I always eat ramen or Choco Pie with one meal.
"I spent a long time living alone and didn’t know there was such a cafeteria, and this is my first time coming here,” he said.
“I feel embarrassed and regretful that I haven't prepared for getting this old,” said Lee, asking that his full name not be printed.
Mr. Park, 83, arrived at the cafeteria before 7 a.m. He traveled all the way from Paju, Gyeonggi.
“I eat here every day," he said, "as I can get the most variety.”
Park added, “I leave early every morning in order to be in the first 250 people to arrive.”
At one point, a scuffle breaks out on one side of the cafeteria’s waiting area. Several elderly people waiting for free meals are accused of already getting lunch boxes from other organizations.
Staffers are told to check their bags.
“This happens every day,” said a staffer.
The poor and the elderly are not the only ones struggling with skyrocketing prices. So are the volunteer organizations trying to help them.
The Wongaksa Free Cafeteria, which has served free lunches to the poor for 30 years, recently reduced the number of side dishes from four to two. This is because the cost of food ingredients, which was 18 million won to 20 million won until last year, rose to 25 million won lately.
“The price of pork went up more than 50 percent, and prices for all the vegetables more than doubled,” said Kang So-yoon, 55, manager of the Wongaksa Free Cafeteria.
“I've been preparing meals for eight years, and this is the most difficult period we’ve ever experienced,” Kang said.
“We prepare about 300 servings a day, but with the recent increase in the cost of ingredients, we had to reduce about 50 servings,” she said.
“It breaks my heart when we have to turn away old people who came after the meals ran out.”
BY SUK GYEONG-MIN [email@example.com]